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Buddhism, me, mental health and trauma therapy

 I have been a practising Buddhist since the late 1960s (yes, I’m that old!) although I have “lapsed” a couple of times since then. 

Buddhism is, for me, a philosophy, a spiritual path and a way of living rather than a religion, I tend to see myself as a secular Buddhist and all the various aspects of Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics I see as allegories or metaphors. Buddhism is defined as a non-theistic religion – there are no supernatural beings – the Buddha himself rejected the existence of a creator deity. Although there are gods and goddesses found in some Buddhist traditions, they are symbols and icons of Buddhist teaching rather than divine beings. Indeed, the Buddha’s teachings emphasise personal practice and observing moral principles above any kind of dogma or expectation of being “saved” by a god or goddess. As a lay Buddhists I follow the Five Precepts or moral principles:

  1. Do not kill any living being
  2. Do not steal anything
  3. Avoid any action which will lead to too much stimulation of senses
  4. Do no lie or gossip about other people
  5. Do not partake in anything which will cloud your mind

These are not divine commandments, just practical guidelines to follow for one’s own wellbeing in life. 

A key aspect of Buddhism is the Dhamma or Dharma – the nature of what-is, the truth of what the Buddha taught. Dharma refers not only to the sayings of the Buddha, but also to the later traditions of interpretation and addition that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and to expand upon the Buddha’s teachings. For others still, they see the dharma as referring to the “truth”, or the ultimate reality of “the way that things really are”. One of the main elements of the Dharma are the Four Noble Truths:

  1. The truth of suffering (accepting that all life is impermanent and imperfect, and that it involves frustration, dissatisfaction, sadness, illness, disease and death)
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering (knowing that there are things in life that cause suffering, for example desire, which is the need for things to be a certain way rather than as it is)
  3. The truth of the end of suffering (understanding that suffering can be ended if we detach ourselves from craving and desire)
  4. The truth of the path to the end of suffering (knowing that there is a way to end suffering: the Noble Eightfold Path which is a guide to living ethically)

Secular dharma looks at the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and the teachings and practices of the dharma in the context of the global, modern world. Instead of treating

the four noble truths as unquestionable doctrine, secular dharma practitioners interpret the teaching as a wise recommendation that we practice four tasks (the Four Noble Truths) of:

  1. embracing life
  2. letting go of reactivity 
  3. seeing the ceasing of reactivity
  4. acting ethically and skilfully (mindfully)

Practicing these tasks enables us to take up a contemplative way of being in the world without getting entangled in esoteric, metaphysical truth claims. 

Buddhism is also a form of psychology that is consistent with the scientific method that stresses observation and judging for oneself (versus simply following dogma).  It has several formal applications in the therapy field today the most familiar being Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Compassion Focused Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy– all blends of Buddhist philosophy and cognitive therapy.

Buddhist psychology maintains that our psychological state depends not so much on our circumstances, but more on how we relate to what life brings our way. It acknowledges that pain – whether physical or emotional – is an unavoidable part of life and with that pain comes some suffering.  However, as human beings we tend to add additional layers of psychological suffering by how we engage with our experiences. In particular, it’s a strong desire to control things – to hang on to what we want and push away what’s unpleasant – that gets us into trouble; to want things to be other than they are.

According to Buddhist philosophy, when we cultivate certain ways of being in the world, then we’re apt to experience the qualities associated with mental health – things like insight, balance, joy and kindness. Below is a discussion of the core factors that lead to both unhealthy and healthy states of mind. There are many types of mindfulness practices and tools designed to foster healthy mental states and work effectively with the unhealthy ones, some of which are referenced below as well.

 At some point in therapy, I teach what I call “Mindfulness 101”: for those who aren’t familiar with the concept of ‘mindfulness’ from the Buddhist perspective, its central premise is about paying attention to the present moment with a sense of receptivity, non-judgment and compassion toward whatever is arising.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about throwing out all cares and simply “living for the moment,” nor is it a recipe for passivity. Rather, mindfulness is about connecting fully with the here and now, recognising there is of course a past and a future, but not fixating on either one of those.  While it’s healthy to try to understand the past and plan for the future, it’s easy for the mind to dwell in those mental states to one’s own detriment. The past has gone, the future is not here, we can only live and act in the present moment. 

When practiced and applied, the mind becomes more open, clear and less reactive, creating more space to make meaningful choices – choices about things like what perspectives to take and what actions to take (or not take). In other words, mindfulness can help us lead wiser and more fulfilling lives. People who have been traumatised tend to react automatically, they do not respond or reflect mindfully. A key aspect of trauma work is to facilitate clients in moving away from automatic reactions towards mindful responses.

I will continue this theme in another blog.

The Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right action (behaving in a skilful way and not harming others)
  2. Right speech (speaking truthfully)
  3. Right livelihood (earning a living in a way that doesn’t cause suffering or harm to others)
  4. Right mindfulness (being aware of yourself and the emotions of others)
  5. Right effort (putting effort into meditation and positive emotions)
  6. Right concentration (developing focus so that you can meditate
  7. Right view/understanding (remembering that actions have consequences)
  8. Right intention (being clear about following the Buddhist path)

Further Reading